According to one of my one-on-one students who loves to monologue about Chinese politics, members of a certain ethnic and religious minority in China keep setting themselves on fire (see here here here here here here here here here here here and here) because they are greedy, ungrateful, and just trying to squeeze more money and privilege out of the benevolent government, which is already giving them a better deal than they deserve, and oh for the life of ethnic and religious minorities in China, they have it so good. (I generally avoid politics with my Chinese students and don’t bring it up, except for one time.)
Of course I’ve heard and read that opinion before; it’s part of the prescribed script in Mainland China. But when I heard it passionately delivered again this week by a 17-year-old ESL student from Shenzhen, some previously unconnected China anecdotes came to mind, reminding me that in China, people do empathy differently.
A policeman stops an ambulance with patient en-route to the hospital so a government official can come down the road unimpeded by traffic. [Link]
I’m wondering if — and if I were still in school this might make an interesting research project — collectivist cultures paradoxically tend to result in a lesser degree of personal empathy or ability to empathize, or in an alternate distribution of empathetic emotional energies (relatively more to in-group and less to strangers), or something. I’m not the first to wonder that, of course. Visitors to China who stay long enough often get conflicting impressions: locals can seem both incredibly attentive (to friends, family and connections) and shockingly callous (to strangers), depending on the situation. A quick google search turned up this article, which:
focuses on the propensity of Chinese young adults (age 30 and younger) to help strangers, investigating how the shift from collectivist values to individualism and universal morality may make young Chinese more likely than older Chinese to help strangers.
Anyway, let’s get on with the irresponsible use of cultural anecdotes. :)
If I wasn’t already familiar with China, I’m sure my jaw would have hit the floor when my student went off about the greedy T!bet@n self-immolators. Petty, selfish monks and greedy farmers, lighting themselves on fire like that! After asking him a few questions, it became clear that my student had never thought (and didn’t think it relevant at all) to find out from the people themselves why they were doing it — that was apparently unnecessary to understanding the situation. I don’t expect him to agree with the monks’ complaints or approve of their actions, but I was appalled at his apparent total lack of empathy. And that reminded me of many other startling lack-of-empathy anecdotes — not all of which are so serious:
- The Factory Girls author describes staying in one of her subject’s crowded village homes. The parents wake up extra early one morning for some reason and precede to talk at full-volume as if it doesn’t occur to them to be considerate of a house full of sleeping people.
- Brutal advice-giving and ‘help’ in tragic circumstances, for example, after a miscarriage, when the family members blame the mother directly for transgressing traditional Chinese pregnancy customs (of which there are legion);
- The apparent lack of a Good Samaritan ethos in traditional Chinese culture (which contains a whole string of specific anecdotes);
- Some forms of personal talk, where people draw attention to and comment publicly on aspects of each other that the other person probably doesn’t want commented on: you’re getting pretty fat, you’ve got some bad acne, etc.
None of these actually prove anything, of course. You can cherry pick and present anecdotes of any society to make it appear any way you want, but that doesn’t mean your anecdotes are truly representative. Anecdotes don’t prove anything. They can helpfully illustrate things if they are used appropriately, but I’m not even claiming that here. These are merely what came to mind when I heard my student’s take on the self-immolations.
But thinking it over also reminds me of situations where locals displayed attentiveness above and beyond what I would expect to see in North America; where people seemed way more “tuned-in” to others than I usually am. Two specific instances that immediately spring to mind involve two different couples (Chinese guy, American girl) where the husbands/fiances were way more tuned in to their wives/fiancees than I expected — they put the average American boyfriend to shame, and probably made their fiancees’ foreign girl friends jealous. All that to say, my student’s comments got me thinking about how empathy works in China, and how in at least some ways, they do it differently than we do in North America.